S. Kent Brown
All the New Testament Gospels preserve one memory or another of Jesus’ call of his first disciples. The most extensive account appears in Luke 5:1–11. Matthew and Mark report Jesus’ purposeful stroll along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and his call of Peter with Andrew and James with John; Mark adds the note that James and John leave their father Zebedee in the boat when they follow after Jesus (Matthew 4:18–22; Mark 1:16–20). John’s Gospel records the initial curiosity of two of the Baptist’s disciples—one is Andrew and the other likely is John himself—which turns into commitment and leads to other disciples joining Jesus (John 1:35–51). Luke, on the other hand, narrates the miracle of the fish and how it affects the two pairs of brothers.
Luke’s rehearsal focuses on the occasion and the place. The event occurs next to Capernaum, where Peter and Andrew have their fishing business. It happens when “the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, [and] he stood by the lake of Gennesaret” (Luke 5:1). Evidently, not all can hear if he stands on the shore. Jesus therefore looks for a boat from which to address the gathered crowd. He finds one that belongs to Simon Peter. He asks Simon to “thrust out a little from the land.” Thereupon, while Simon continues to work on his nets, Jesus “sat down, and taught the people out of the ship” (Luke 5:2–3). Regrettably, Luke or his source preserves nothing of what Jesus says. The next experience is only for the disciples.
The crowd breaks up and begins to drift away. None of these people will pay attention to what is happening at a distance from the shore. At this moment, Jesus turns to Simon Peter and says, “Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.” Simple enough. But Peter protests mildly: “Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing” (Luke 5:4–5). But Peter has already been witness to Jesus’ powers on the prior Sabbath when Jesus cleanses a man in the Capernaum synagogue of “an unclean devil,” then heals his mother-in-law of “a great fever,” and next cures those with “divers diseases” who are brought to Jesus at the end of the Sabbath (Luke 4:33–41). So after hearing Jesus’ command to take his boat farther out and “let down [his] nets” for a promised “draught” of fish, Peter affirms, “Nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net” (Luke 5:5). It was the right thing to do.
From this point in the story, plural pronouns appear. Hence, we know that someone else is in the boat. Most likely it is Peter’s brother Andrew, though unnamed. From the other Gospels we know that Andrew was among the first four disciples called. When the net goes into the water, probably a deep-sea trammel net which can hold the huge catch of fish, it fills with “a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake” (Luke 5:6). The Greek verb “to break” stands in the imperfect tense here and conveys the sense “to begin to break or tear.” At this point, Jesus doubtless helps the two brothers try to wrestle the fish into the boat. But the large number of fish won’t fit into one boat. Peter and his brother call to their partners, James and John, to come and help with the catch so that it is not lost. The multitude of fish “filled both the ships, so that they began to sink” (Luke 5:7).
To be clear on the size of “the ships,” as the King James translators render the term, the remains of a first-century boat were found along the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee in January of 1986 whose dimensions are 27 x 7.5 feet, and 4.3 feet deep. Of course, we do not know whether Peter’s boat is this big. But it would be close to the same size, if the recovered boat is representative of fishing boats of the era. And there is no reason to think otherwise. If the two boats of the disciples are about this spacious, then the miracle is all the more impressive. However large the boats are, the miracle brings Peter to fall “at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). He surely senses that he is in the presence of the Divine.
Luke ties off his story by writing that, when the four men “brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him” (Luke 5:11). But wait. What about all those fish? In less than forty-eight hours, they will spoil. The question is whether Jesus performs this remarkable miracle just to impress these men. Or might there be more to the event? As a measuring standard, to the modern church the Savior has said: “Wo be unto man that . . . wasteth flesh and hath no need” (D&C 49:21). If we apply this standard to the miracle of the fish, we can see another purpose in Jesus’ act. He, of course, knows that he is calling these men away from their families. These men are the breadwinners on whom family members rely for their basic needs. And in coming months these families will need food and income. In another passage from modern scripture, the Savior declares that “I, the Lord, give unto them [the Twelve] a promise that I will provide for their families” (D&C 118:3). In this light, it appears that Jesus is providing for the families’ needs. But how can the men preserve all those fish?
It turns out that less than five miles from Capernaum, along the west shore of the lake, sits the town of Taricheae. This town, also known as Magdala, the home town of Mary Magdalene, is a fish salting center. The name Taricheae derives from the Greek word tarichos which means “dried or smoked fish.” It is an easy thing for the four men to sail or row their filled boats to Taricheae to process the fish. As fishermen, they surely know of the salting service in the town. By this simple act, they will hand to their families enough food for a couple of years as well as fish to trade in the market for other goods. And it all happens just as these men set off with Jesus. In an act of generous compassion, it seems apparent that Jesus sees to the needs of his disciples’ families.
—This post corresponds with LDS Gospel Doctrine New Testament Lesson 6. Based on The Testimony of Luke by S. Kent Brown, an e-volume in the BYU New Testament Commentary Series (see byuntc.com). See also his article “The Savior’s Compassion,” Ensign 41/3 (March 2011): 51–53.